Holy shirtballs, how come no one told me Matchbox Twenty had a new album out? Or – OR – that is also was a start to finish foot stomper? This is a watershed moment for the band, it is for MB20 what American Idiot was for Green Day, a moment that us reminds of what the band can be like when they’re firing on all cylinders and focused on being the best version of themselves.
Where the Light Goes has floored me. It’s just one more unexpected present from 2023 that I did not expect to receive. There’s simply not a single weak track on this album, and for reasons unclear to me, there’s a serious lack of coverage for this album. Rolling Stone, PopMatters, and Pitchfork have nothing to say about the album, for some perplexing reason.
The lyrics might not win any awards, but from start to finish, the album seems hell-bent on putting a smile on the face of listeners, and infusing them with a feeling of hope and the strength to push through to tomorrow. The album is almost ruthlessly optimistic and cheerful with the exception of perhaps two tracks (I Know Better, Selling Faith), but goddamn if this album isn’t like a thunderous charge of a thousand torch-lit horses racing against the dark.
I did not see this coming, nor did I remotely expect this foot stomper to jump off a goddamn lightning bolt-riding unicorn and slap me in the face. This is one of the best pop-rock albums of 2023.
Lorne Balfe’s score for Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves dropped this morning, and I bought it immediately (on iTunes) and am already on my second play-through.
On its own merits, outside the movie, it sounds good. It’s not a Remote Control Production-sounding post-Crimson Tide style wall of noise as has been the outcome of many of Zimmer’s students. It’s very much a score that fits the visuals on screen, and, if I am correct, is the entire score, what with it being:
1. 49 tracks in length. Yes. 49. This is a big album.
2. The first of two albums
The run-time of the album is 1 hour, 30 minutes, 45 seconds, which for a movie that’s reportedly 2 hours and 14 minutes long, suggests to me that it’s likely all the music shown on-screen.
But what about the second album, you ask? Well, as Balfe said:
“[We’re] writing the score but then also writing more which doesn’t feature in the film, so we’re going to do an extra album, which is going to be music to play with.” He explained. “It’s for gaming sessions, and it’s for those when they’re gaming to be able to have their own soundtrack when playing.”
You can expect to hear lutes, guitars, harps, strings, woodwinds, drums, and bagpipes in Balfe’s score. It’s been a delightful surprise for me, as he’s an insanely prolific composer, but nothing he’s ever composed has spoken to me. He’s managed to definitely accomplish that with this score.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is now in general release in cinemas across Australia – and presumably the rest of the planet.
In June 2022 Nightdive Studios, a videogame developer known for publishing remasters and ports of classic PC games such as System Shock, Doom 64, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, released an Enhanced Edition of the classic Westwood adventure game Blade Runner to disastrous results.
It’s been suggested by some that the game’s release date was set to coincide with the 40th anniversary release date of the 1982 classic – and that the game was not ready for release by that point in time. Despite some well-received trailers depicting upscaled cutscenes and full compatibility with modern operating systems, what players received in June 2022 fell quite short of expectations.
Lacking access to the game’s source code, Nightdive Studios utilised a remastering process that was designed to remove compression artefacts from the game’s pixels and textures, but instead resulted in numerous details being removed or looking smeared – be it posters hung on walls, carpets, or even the city’s perpetual rainfall. A further outcry was had over a highly simplified UI that removed the game’s original KIA interface.
A few days after the game hit digital storefronts, Nightdive Studios organised to have the original version of the game included alongside the enhanced edition for free, with the original being playable through the use of a SCUMMVM DOS shell.
But by then, the harm had already been done, with thousands of players requesting reimbursements across both Steam and Good Old Games (GOG). To date, the enhanced edition has sold an estimated 5,700 units and earned the studio nearly $45,000 in revenue, no doubt far less than initially hoped.
In the months that followed, Nightdive Studios knuckled down and produced several patches, which resolved numerous bugs and issues flagged by players. Even the most recent patch, Update 1.2.1075, released on 11 February 2023, which introduced many significant quality of life updates, has not been enough to fix the game.
In part, this is due to the limitations of what can be done when a studio lacks access to a game’s source code, and in part due to the “voxel plus” technology utilised by Westwood Studios back in 1997. In theory, a reshade patch could tweak the contrast and vibrancy levels, but barring a full-blown remake of the original game, there’s simply no getting around the limitations of the game’s engine.
Nightdive Studios has managed to earn back some good will over the course of the last year through its patches and the free inclusion of the original, unenhanced game, alongside visually compelling previews for their upcoming System Shock remake.
But one can’t help but wonder if the woes they experienced following last year’s debacle is what led to the current Atari acquisition, which, as stated by Yahoo Finance, will involve “an initial consideration of US$10 million,” with “an earn-out of up to US$10 million, payable in cash over the next three years based on the future performance of Nightdive”.
Blade Runner Enhanced Edition is currently available on Steam for AU$14.50 and GOG for AU$7.29.
It’s been one hell of a hot minute, hasn’t it? The blog went a bit quiet in the middle of Covid, and now that we’re on the other side of it over here in Kangaroostan, it’s time to start the machine again.
I’ve had a few hours over the past week to catch up on a show that my best friend back in Boston has been recommending since the moment it dropped: Peacemaker. It’s everything I’d been promised and more, and is a wild, colourful, zany, and profoundly empathetic ride. It’s some of the best live-action comic book material since the early seasons of Arrow and Flash and Phase 1 of the MCU.
Which leads us to the DCEU, which has been going through some interesting changes of late. I recently fell down the rabbit hole of DCU announcements, and have some thoughts:
I like that James Gunn talks about the writing aspect of not just being beholden to dates – this is a good thing. And sad that it even needs to be stated.
Having different aesthetic visions for each project is a definite good, as I am tired of the bland color grading used in MCU films. (As Joe Cornish recently noted in a playlist interview, “Marvel…had this universe where the movies had to integrate.”) Integration of course resulting in a unified and uninteresting color grading rule across seemingly everything they pump out.
It looks like they’re digging into DC lore a bit more than has been done in the past, which is certainly a good thing.
The first ten years seems to be divided into two chapters, with the first chapter being subtitled Gods and Monsters.
Gunn and Safran have made it clear that they do have an endgame in mind. Quoting Gunn (courtesy of io9):
“We’re not making it up as we go along… The 8-10 year plan is two chapters and there’s an ending to our basic story that we tell there, but it’s not the ending of the universe. So, now, will Peter and I be here beyond that time? [Laughs] I’m already tired. It’s been two months. But those first two chapters are worked out, and then it can go on from there.”
Batman and Robin. Finally. And it’s someone other than Dick Greyson. Every live action film since Batman Begins has struggled to know what to do with Robin (I can’t speak for animated projects, which remain unseen by me). It’ll be nice to see how that dynamic plays out, given that Damien is apparently, as Gunn calls him, “a little son of a bitch,” an “assassin”, and a “murderer”.
The writers room is an interesting collection of people: James Gunn, Drew Goddard, Christina Hodson, Jeremy Carver, Christal Henry, and Tom King.
It looks like they understand that not everything has to appeal to everyone, and are making projects with diverse tones, and not making everything necessarily mandatory viewing.
The Flash will be the lynchpin that gets everything into motion, as it looks like we’re getting Flashpoint, which will help reset the DCU timeline or…something. (As long as it’s better executed than it was on season 3 of The Flash, I’ll be happy. Gods love them for trying, but I didn’t feel like they did the source material justice.)
After a twenty-year wait, fans of the 2001 isometric action RPG Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance will finally be able to enjoy this Black Isle classic on the PC.
PC Gamer reported this morning that Black Isle Studios released a tweet (because that’s how news breaks now, the revolution will not be televised, it will be…tweeted) that the “PC port of BG:DA is in the works and coming later this year. We’re also hoping to ensure it has online co-op using Steam’s remote play”.
While this is certainly good news for ARPG and Forgotten Realms fans in general, the timing of the release will no doubt cause marketing departments no small amount of headaches on account of that other action RPG coming out later this year – Forgotten Realms: Dark Alliance.
What could possibly go wrong, releasing two similarly-styled games with the exact same sub-title in the same year?
Diablo. Released in January 1997, this game kicked off a new style of genre: the action role-playing game (ARPG). Millions and millions of lines of text have been written about the phenomenon that was this game, and the sub-genre that it created within the larger umbrella of role-playing games.
It’s a game that’s hovered in the periphery of my life since I was a young teenager. It was one of the games we sold at CompUSA when I worked there. Several of my friends were completely enthralled and addicted to it. Several of my co-writers at 3DGaming.net absolutely loved the game’s dark and violent atmosphere. Even my DM at the time, in the midst of running an epic five-year campaign, found himself captivated by the sparse dark fantasy world created by Blizzard Entertainment.
Me? Not so much.
As is well-known, the late 90s saw something of a renaissance in the world of digital role-playing games, with the arrival of such titles as Final Fantasy VII, Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, Wizardry VI and VII, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Pools of Radiance, Dungeon Siege, and more.
Many of these games featured party-based mechanics, a rich amount of lore and backstory, character interactions, dialogue choices, complex plots, and richly-imagined fantasy worlds. Diablo by comparison, had…one main world map. Tristram. And below Tristram? 16 levels divided across four areas: The Cathedral, The Catacombs, The Caves, and finally, Hell.
Compared to its contemporaries, by this writer’s estimation, Diablo failed to provide several key components necessary to keep me engaged as a fan of the cRPG genre: depth, story, lore, characterisation, and an interesting world map.
And just to add injury to insult: the game lacked a save game feature nor any meaningful item or inventory management system. And dying in game? That felt like the final slap in the face. Did you die in-game? Guess what? Now you need to go and fetch your body – much like you would in an MMO like Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, or Ultima Online.
All the gameplay and design decisions made by Blizzard resulted in a game that felt like a massively multiplayer online game wearing the skin of a single player game. Suffice to say, I was not a fan. The game simply did not speak to me as a gamer. And that’s perfectly fine.
Time goes by
In the years that followed, two sequels were released, and a fourth is scheduled to hit store shelves within the next year or two. And despite its age, the original Diablo still has an active and engaged fan base – including, of course, modders.
And oh boy have they kept themselves busy.
There have been numerous mods over the years, including (and in no particular order): Diablo+, Diablo HD, The Hell, Infernity, The Rebirth, Hell 2, and Torch.
Each project sought to bring something different to the game. Rebirth, for example, uses the original assets of Diablo to tell a story set in the aftermath of Diablo II. Diablo + is a quality-of-life mod that integrates features from more contemporary RPGs as well as from Diablo II. The Hell ramps up the challenges in the game to nigh-on nightmarish levels.
And then there’s Diablo HD, a single-player and multiplayer mod for Diablo. As with the other mods, it took the base game and sought to make changes, many of them technical in nature, but some, as with Diablo+, sought to make the game compatible with modern systems.
What the team at Diablo HD have pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. In updating the game, they’ve made a few gameplay tweaks, introduced dynamic levels, new (and randomly-generated) bosses, new locations, and so much more. Though called Diablo HD, it’s actually two separate projects: Project Belzebub and Project Tchernobog. The former is a singleplayer and the latter – a multiplayer mod.
Rather than summarise it for you, here, instead, is a list of just some of the changes made by Project Belzebub:
Increased resolution and support for panoramic screens
Fully integrated with new windows systems
Many user interface improvements
New hero classes Barbarian and Assassin
All quests which were missing from original game are now implemented
Four difficulty levels available in single player
New special and randomly generated bosses
New character skills
New item types and affixes
204 unique items
28 sets with 105 set items
170 crafting recipes
Great number of minor gameplay changes
And many more…
And when they say “many more”, they mean it. One brave gamer, in fact, has gone through and produced a fantastically comprehensive write-up of every change and modification they could identify within the game, which discusses graphics, storage, classes, skills, spells, gameplay, difficulty levels, and one of my favourite additions – crafting.
If you have even the slightest interest in Diablo, this write-up by Quasit is absolutely worth checking out. Quasit went to crazy lengths to discuss all identifiable changes in detail.
Conversations with the Past
Project Belzebub is one hell of a mod. Nearly every design feature that frustrated me 24 years ago has been either corrected or tweaked just enough to no longer bug the absolute hell out of me. And if that sounds like a slight against the original game – it’s not. Diablo is piece of art from a period of history where designers we were still figuring out what games could and could not do, and experimented with all sorts of choices that contemporary audiences would find completely baffling.
But that was gaming in the 90s. It was the wild west. Designers and artists didn’t know what they didn’t know. So it’s nice to see that two decades later, a group of talented modders could come together to take a classic and find a way to make it not just work for modern systems, but to also work for modern gamers. Or for gamers who felt it came short of meeting its potential all those years ago.
Media tie-ins are a notoriously tricky balancing act for writers. On the one hand, it’s a fun opportunity to play in someone else’s sandbox and a chance to contribute your own voice and ideas to the established world and lore.
On the other hand, the stories they can tell are hampered by the restrictions set out by the parent company and publisher. Commonly, media tie-in novels provide background information or lore that games don’t explain due to narrative/design constrictions or because it would simply be too distracting.
Which forces writers to engage in a tricky – if not fascinating – balancing act, balancing their creative impulses with the boundaries and parameters set out by the needs of the text. Instead of reaching out to previous tie-in writers like Mel Odom or Richard Knaak, Blizzard Entertainment and Pocket Books instead decided to bring in American horror and thriller writer Nate Kenyon, best known for his Bram Stroker Award finalist novels Bloodstone and The Reach.
As explained in an interview with Kenyon, “The Order is an attempt to reboot the franchise, in a way, by providing the back story from the first two games and giving a lead-in to the third.”
Not unlike the Star Wars extended universe, Blizzard Entertainment brought in new blood to try and revitalise the series and explore new ways to tell stories within the world.
In this they have succeeded. Kenyon’s horror sensibilities are clearly on display within the novel, conveying a distinct and legitimate sense of unease, discomfort, and a palpable sense of a world descending into darkness and decay.
Divided into three parts (The Gathering Shadows, Darkness Descending, and The Lord of Lies) across 40 chapters, The Order reintroduces readers to Deckard Cain, an established character from the first two Diablo games, and also introduces the character of Leah – who appears in Diablo III, as well as the monk Mikulov, who appears in several other stories, including Storm of Light and Brothers in Arms.
The Gathering Storm, the novel’s “setup sequence”, introduces the principal characters and a familiar face or two from previous games, as well as the principal antagonist of the novel, the wholly unimaginatively named Dark One. (Clearly 2012 wasn’t the year to retire certain exhausted genre tropes.) Darkness Descending is the novel’s road trip sequence, and is followed by the third segment, The Lord of Lies, which is a gripping and exciting action sequence from nearly start to finish, and shows off Kenyon’s finely-honed thriller muscles.
If there are any complaints to be had, they are few and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Kenyon’s penchant for grim and sometimes peculiar analogies can become tiresome to some readers, and the sparse level of description given to environments and characters might leave some readers frustrated, particularly those accustomed to larger fantasy novels where such things are par for course.
So despite a successful standalone novel, the novel does also provide some valuable insights and information for anyone about to sink their teeth into Diablo III. As stated by Kenyon, “There are major clues to some of the most important parts of the game, and this novel will give gamers a new perspective on D3 that they wouldn’t have without it. I think players who read the novel will go into D3 with a deeper understanding of why these events happen, why certain characters behave the way they do, and it will make their experience that much richer and more complex.”
In short, there’s something for everyone here. For Diablo fans, a bit of extra lore, and for general readers, an ambient and perhaps slightly underwritten but otherwise effective fantasy horror novel with a nice dose of mystery, intrigue, and character development.
Diablo III: The Order is available now in bookstore as well as on the Kindle store. You can learn more about Nate Kenyon at his website (though it does appear to be down at the moment).
It’s been a busy month here at Casa Popov. Between job applications and interviews, an erratic work schedule, catching up on reading, and testing out some mods for classic games, it’s left me with little time to get any writing done this April.
I’ll be doing some write-ups of the mods I’ve been testing out, as I think they’re incredibly interesting and worth talking about.
In the meantime, here are some books coming out this year that caught my attention – as well as what I’m currently reading.
I never read just one book at a time. I like being able to switch between different genres and authors to suit different moods. It’s simply how I’m wired. So at the moment, I’ve got my nose in three books:
Diablo III: The Order by Nate Kenyon. An exceptionally well-written media tie-in leading up to the events in the ARPG Diablo III, Nate Kenyon knows how to set a mood. And set it he does. If nothing else, this book communicates the darkness and atmosphere of the Diablo games really well. Kenyon’s an established horror writer, and does magnificent work here, connecting the events of Diablo II to Diablo III.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. This beast of a book can only be read slowly. It’s chock full of observations and insights and weaves in insights from a disparate number of schools of thought, including anthropology, history, sociology, economics, and numismatics. It’s an astonishingly thoroughly-researched and unique text and a crowning achievement by the late David Graeber.
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. The first of three books in the Baroque Cycle. It’s a mammoth book, sometimes a slog, frequently under-edited and overwritten, with characters who don’t speak remotely like real humans, but instead are more like walking Wikipedia entries. I read it before, back around the time of its release. And despite my frustrations with the characters and prose, it’s an exceptionally well-researched novel, and that makes it worth my time, as it completely immerses readers in the era. Perhaps even too much. Like I said, it’s a frustrating book. But a lot of love and effort went into the Baroque Cycle and it shows. Points for effort.
“Chaos and despair spread throughout the Kingdom of Isilmerald. Its desperate people cry out, praying to the gods for help. But the force they face is no mere plague of the undead, or demonic attack… Something far more sinister, far more primal is afoot. Avarice!
Law and order quickly collapses as everyday citizens turn outlaw, attacking anyone unfortunate to cross their path…all for a few more gold coins. From high-born to low, greed spreads. Infecting the land like some divinely inspired disease, intent on purging the world of men. And it comes for you next!
Will you yield to the dark tendrils of desire coiling around your heart? Become an agent of greed and usher the kingdom into chaos. Or rebuke its seductive advances? Vow to discover the truth of the madness and restore the kingdom to its rightful glory? The choice is yours.”
Welcome to Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness, which takes players on a journey through the fantasy world of Yerengal.
A Kickstarter-funded single-player game developed by Austrian and Hungarian videogame developer GrapeOcean Technologies, the isometric cRPG takes more than a few cues from the Black Isle and Bioware games that inspired it – including the title, which has the same initials as Baldur’s Gate. No doubt intentionally.
Featuring real-time with pause mechanics, an isometric camera angle, an original rules system, and a mix of conventional and original high fantasy races and factions, the game has been in development since early 2018 and is expected to be released to PCs, Linux, and MacOS operating systems on both Steam and GOG.
Having clearly taken a few cues from more recent isometric cRPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin II, the interface will no doubt seem a bit familiar to players of those games – which is arguably for the best, as both titles built took the ideas established by Bioware and Black Isle and enhanced them, by including features such as a party war chest and crafting skills and options. It’s not surprising then, that Black Geyser would do much the same.
Despite having been publicly backed by prominent industry figures such as Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart and InXile CEO Brian Fargo, the game has maintained a strangely low profile the last few years. Despite having a dedicated website and a semi-active presence across their Facebook, Youtube, and Kickstarter pages, there’s been very little active marketing for the game–which is unusual, given GrapeOcean’s intention of releasing the game some time in 2021.
Hopefully this relative silence will change as the game approaches completionm, as this game deserves the biggest audience possible.
At present, beta demos have been issued to backers of the project, and the company itself has released several free-to-watch demo previews on their Youtube channel (see below). They’ve even released some music that will be heard in the final game.
Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness is scheduled for release in 2021.
After 40 hours, and 13 levels, another box has been ticked, another accomplishment made, another goal achieved – I’ve finally finished The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
Originally released on 1 May 2002, Morrowind is the third main entry in the Elder Scrolls series, and was preceded by The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall – the latter of which is commonly cited as the biggest single-player game ever made.
Confession: I did not like Morrowind upon release. Terrific score by Jeremy Soule aside, the interface irked me, the lack of any guidance from the game as to where players ought to go or do frustrated me, and the excessively open-ended game design failed to captivate me as a player.
A very similar feeling was had with the fourth entry in the series, Oblivion.
It was not until I met my fiancee and was introduced to her favourite game – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, that I became hooked. On her recommendation, I purchased the Legendary Edition on Steam for $60AUD and was hooked instantly. Its cinematic opening, comforting wintry landscape (a familiar sight to this Russian-born New England native), majestic score courtesy of Jeremy Soule, satisfying marker system, and expansive modding community resulted in a gaming experience that consumed over 400 hours of my life.
And after some hemming and hawing, led me to return to the previous games in the series that had, earlier in my life, left me feeling indifferent.
So I’ve gone back to both Oblivion, and more recently Morrowind, and have completed the main stories in both games, as well as multiple side-quests. And I have already started making mental notes on the write-up that will eventually make its way here.
But for the moment, I’m happy to celebrate an achievement 19 years in the making.
It’s still a frustrating game, with a UI that lacks the kind of flexibility that I would prefer (wherefore art thou, sorting columns?). But it’s undeniably a gorgeously designed game, and one that famously saved Bethesda Games from closing shop. In 2021, it’s a game that absolutely requires a few basic quality of life mods to be enjoyed – primarily in the form of the OpenMW mod, which updates the graphics, resolution options, and fixes a few bugs as well. That, alongside the Real Sign Posts and Run Faster mods (all of which can be found at Nexus Mods), dramatically improves the game.
And now that I’ve finished Morrowind, it’s time to revisit and finish the biggest game of them all.